Right-wing media and the fringe: A growing history of violence (and denial
This week, the country's attention was captured by the horrific shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old man with ties to white supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations. The fatal shooting came just two months after an April 7 Department of Homeland Security report detailing potential increases in right-wing extremism.
As Media Matters for America documented, the DHS report was immediately and vehemently rejected by numerous conservative commentators, such as Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, and David Asman, who portrayed it as an illegitimate and politically motivated assault on conservatives. (Media Matters Senior Fellow Karl Frisch puts the attacks in even broader perspective here.)
Following the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, these commentators faced criticism for their earlier dismissiveness. Some have since unconvincingly (and in the case of Joe Scarborough, inaccurately) defended their past assessment, and a handful of reporters and analysts are still engaging in falsehoods and inconsistencies in criticizing the DHS report. But on Fox News, Shepard Smith took a different position -- for which he was attacked by conservatives -- saying that the report "was a warning to us all. And it appears now that they were right."
The day before the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert wrote that Fox News and its hosts "will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain." He added that "militia-style vigilante rhetoric has become a cornerstone of the conservative media movement in America, and it's now proudly championed by Fox News on a nearly hourly basis." (He also appeared on CNN this week.)
While right-wing media are certainly not legally culpable for any recent attacks, they are responsible for promoting a culture of fear, paranoia, and violence that is anti-government in the extreme -- a culture in which extremists, including von Brunn and Richard Poplawski, who fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers, were apparently immersed. Poplawski was convinced that the Obama administration was going to take away his guns. Even though no evidence of such a policy exists, right-wing commentators and news organizations made the claim repeatedly before the shooting and have continued to do so since.
Predictably, conservative media figures responded to the museum shooting by attempting to shift attention away from themselves and onto political liberals and even President Obama himself. On June 10, the day of the museum shooting, financial analyst and radio host Jim Lacamp said on Fox News that "we have an administration that's really done a lot of class warfare, a lot of class-baiting. And so, it sets the stage for social unrest." That same day, conservative Tammy Bruce wrote that the Obama administration's "increasing anti-Israel rhetoric and the pandering to the Jew-hating world Arab world ... encourages all the beasts among us." Newsmax.com published an op-ed, cited on Friday by Michael Savage, claiming that Obama "is most certainly creating a climate of hate against" Jews. Colorado radio host Bob Newman even raised questions about whether Obama's recent visit to a concentration camp, or his statement about Israeli settlements, were factors in the shooting.
But as always, the most virulent reality-denier was Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh claimed that von Brunn "is a leftist if anything." He said that Obama is "ramping up hatred for Israel" and that "anti-Jew rhetoric comes from the American left." He claimed that MSNBC broadcasts "hate 24/7." Despite the right wing's repeated use of violent, revolutionary rhetoric, Limbaugh said that it was actually Obama who "thrives and needs chaos" to succeed. And in response to Shepard Smith, he remarked that the "claim that the atmosphere is somehow more violently anti-Obama is simply preposterous."
Indeed, Smith's remarks were the exception for the right. Despite its love of fearmongering, Fox News spent the 24 hours after the von Brunn shooting downplaying it. And on his broadcast that night, Bill O'Reilly, who hypocritically and incorrectly criticized the media for a supposed lack of coverage after the shooting death of Army recruiter Pvt. William Long, and who stokes the anger of viewers whenever it suits him politically, barely mentioned the shooting and instead featured what he called a "very important story" on gay penguins. "Do they wear tight T-shirts?" he asked, laughing. During the two shows after the shooting, Hannity barely mentioned it.